Exploring the Biological Benefits Connecting Exercise and Dopamine Release
There are countless health benefits associated with exercise, including enhanced energy, increased stamina and improved sleep quality. Routine physical activity has also been shown to positively impact people with Parkinson’s disease (PD), improving movement symptoms and executive (high-level thinking) functions. However, the biological reasons behind these benefits have remained a mystery, one that Margaret Rice, PhD, hopes to solve with support from her Parkinson’s Foundation Impact Award.
Dr. Rice is a Professor at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. She has shown that male mice with access to a running wheel have increased release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter important for movement and progressively lost in PD, compared to mice prevented from exercising. These “runner” mice also exhibited increased levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein involved in the formation and growth of new neurons. Taken together, Dr. Rice and her team hypothesize that exercise increases BDNF in the brain, which in turn boosts dopamine release and reduces the negative motor effects of aging and PD.
To test her hypothesis, Dr. Rice will first recreate her previous experiment with female mice, evaluating whether the exercise-induced increases in dopamine and BDNF remain consistent across both sexes. Though taking this step, Dr. Rice recognizes the existence of sex-specific differences in PD and other health conditions, emphasizing the importance of conducting comprehensive testing and appropriate considerations to ensure equity and unbiased medical research.
Next, Dr. Rice will see if exercise can improve the neurological and behavioral health of mice that serve as models for PD. These mice express a mutation of the PARK2 gene [learn more about genetics and Parkinson’s, causing them to experience loss of dopamine neurons in a similar manner as is seen in human PD. Using the same running wheel setup as before, she will compare the movement behavior, dopamine release, and BDNF levels of the PD-model mice with and without the ability to exercise. She will test whether PARK2 mice allowed to run for 28 days gain a boost in dopamine release show improvement in motor behavior.
Dr. Rice and her team’s research is centered on the guiding principle of better understanding the mechanisms behind Parkinson’s. “Understanding these mechanisms is necessary to develop repair or replacement strategies when regulation goes awry, as in PD…. This work will provide new mechanistic insight into beneficial effects of exercise in PD, and thereby identify pathways that could be harnessed for PD therapeutics.”
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